Shivraj Patil’s resignation as Home Minister was a fait accompli he couldn’t have averted — not this time. The die was cast at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on Saturday where he declared his intent to quit on coming under incessant fire over the Mumbai terrorist attack.
“I’ve written my resignation,” Patil disclosed at the meeting — the tone of which was set by Congress president Sonia Gandhi who had handpicked him for the coveted job despite his failure to return to the Lok Sabha in the 2004 elections.
That Patil’s time was up was evident from Sonia’s sharply worded opening remarks. She highlighted the enormity of the tragedy and how much of a blow it was to public morale and the image of the country, the party and the government pilloried by the BJP for its “weak-kneed” response to the growing terrorist threat. “We can no longer sit back and let these attacks overwhelm us. Our response has to be effective and decisive,” she said.
Reassured somewhat by the success of the Home Ministry-controlled NSG in taking out the terrorist gang after fierce gun-battles, Patil hadn’t apparently expected the kind of hostile reception he got at the Congress’s top decision making body, where at least one senior leader demanded upfront his resignation. Others who spoke weren’t that blunt but said as much — the “accountability” imperative coming out clearly in the meeting that lasted over two hours.
Patil’s offer to quit was kept under wraps on the leadership’s specific instructions. “Any premature leakage to the media would have diluted the government and the party’s message of facing terrorism head-on,” explained an AICC office-bearer on conditions of anonymity.
He claimed there were no overt references to Mumbai’s impact on the Congress’s prospects in the ongoing assembly polls and the general elections early next year. But the political concerns that actually caused Patil’s exit were hard to miss in his letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “owning moral responsibility” for the series of terrorist incidents he failed to prevent in recent months. He held on to the office he has since demitted to the consternation of his own leadership and partners in the UPA.
On notice to either shape up or ship out since the September 13 serial bombings in Delhi, Patil had few supporters left within the party’s middle or top echelons. “His exit is good for the Congress and the country,” remarked a CWC member. “He never gave the impression of being a strong Home Minister.”
The alacrity with which the PM accepted his resignation only confirmed such widely shared perceptions. “We had no choice but to address the popular view that we weren’t doing enough to secure people from the terrorist threat,” said a senior minister who attended the meeting.
Of the many speakers who took the floor after Sonia and the PM, not one spoke in Patil’s defence, making hugely untenable his continuation in office. For his part, he spoke of the NSG’s role, his plans to strengthen intelligence and the Centre’s advance warning to Maharashtra against a possible attack by the seat-route.
The turn of events showed he couldn’t impress anyone — a forlorn figure in a minority of one within his own political family.